WEST WARWICK – Each week, hundreds of people from Rhode Island and beyond visit the building at 15 Factory Street to stock up on groceries for only a small donation, no questions asked.
When she founded Project Hand Up, Coreen St. Jean was on a mission to ensure no member of the community would ever have to choose between eating and paying bills. Now, five and a half years later, St. Jean hopes that by purchasing the building where it’s located, the nonprofit can help even more families in need.
A fundraising event at Sweatshop Fitness this weekend will help her meet that goal.
“Let’s help a wonderful organization purchase a building and service more people in the community,” Heidi Audet, owner of Sweatshop Fitness, said of the Spring Craft and Vendor Fair scheduled for Sunday. “It should be a really fun time.”
Founded in 2017 in a small shop on Brookside Avenue, Project Hand Up moved in January of 2020 to a much larger building on Factory Street, half a mile from its original location. The nonprofit has operated out of the building’s 9,000-square-foot warehouse ever since, filling the space with a wide array of food and other items donated regularly by places like Ocean State Job Lot, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Stop & Shop and Roch’s Fresh Foods.
With its move, Project Hand Up’s capacity to serve the community grew significantly – and just in time, because when the pandemic hit two months later, the number of families needing the kind of assistance that the organization provides skyrocketed.
Project Hand Up these days serves between 450 and 500 families each week. For just $ 6, those families are given some $ 200 worth of groceries, everything from fresh produce and canned goods to toiletries and detergents.
Because it’s currently using the parking lot at the West Warwick Civic Center, Project Hand Up can’t open its doors until 3 pm But if it owns the building, the organization can expand its parking lot and should no longer need the lot up the street as it continues, at least for the time being, to deliver groceries to shoppers curbside.
“We could open more hours if we buy this building,” St. Jean said of the organization, currently open just five and a half hours per week.
The building also needs more refrigeration units, and increased electrical capacity to support them.
“Then we could get more food, because we’d have more refrigeration,” St. Jean said. “We could definitely help more people, since we could take in more food to give to them.”
St. Jean is wary of putting all of that money into a building that someone else owns, however.
The organization has been preapproved for a mortgage, and is in the process now of getting the necessary inspections. St. Jean said she anticipates closing on the building in a couple of months.
Mortgage payments will set Project Hand Up back around $ 5,000 monthly, compared to the $ 3,000 that it currently pays each month to rent the space. Fundraisers, like the one taking place at Sweatshop Fitness this weekend, will help offset that cost, St. Jean said.
Before the pandemic, Sweatshop Fitness hosted two fundraising events benefiting Project Hand Up per year – Audet, who serves on its board, said she’s a strong believer in the work that the nonprofit does.
This will be the first major fundraiser that the Coventry fitness center has been able to host since before March of 2020.
Sunday’s event will feature more than 35 vendors selling everything from Pampered Chef products to locally-made crafts. Prizes from each vendor will be raffled off, and a grand prize will be valued at more than $ 1,000.
Kiki.FM will be there streaming live, and food will be served.
In addition to raising funds for Project Hand Up, Audet said she hopes the event will raise awareness of the organization and the role that it plays in the community.
“People don’t realize how important this program is,” she said. “I just rally around anything we can do to make it easier for the community to have this food supplement program.”
The craft and vendor fair is a chance for those looking to give back to learn more about Project Hand Up and the important work that it does, Audet said. It’s a free, family-friendly event, she said, and is also a great opportunity to support small, local businesses.
“It’s a way to bring the community together,” she added, “and I feel like there hasn’t been enough of that going around.”
The Spring Craft and Vendor Fair will take place from 9 am to 2 pm this Sunday, May 15, at 81 Sandy Bottom Road, Coventry.